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Of Aquamaids and Giant Sponges

By Susan Harb
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 14, 2007

The mermaid dived straight down, and she didn't stop until she reached 117 feet below the water's surface.

Once there, she tossed aside her air hose and miraculously held her breath for the entire 12-story ascent. In a grave voice, the announcer asked audience members to hold their breaths along with her as a clock on a monitor ticked away the seconds.

I made it to 18; my nephew to 25; the mermaid, 2 minutes 45 seconds.

The fewer than 20 people watching the show at Florida's Weeki Wachee Springs applauded with enthusiasm and relief. But with attendance numbers like those, it's impossible for the 60-year-old attraction to breathe easy.

It's not alone. More than 150 Florida roadside attractions have closed since the heyday of the 1950s and '60s. Victims of interstates that bypassed the two-lane amusements, changing tastes in entertainment and stricter government regulations, many of Florida's mom-and-pop sites are on the endangered list.

"Nature was once enough," said Gary R. Mormino, professor of Florida studies at the University of South Florida at St. Petersburg. "Fifty years ago people were bewitched by what they saw. The old attractions had some gewgaws -- alligators wrestling or a parrot show -- but the real attraction was Florida's natural beauty."

Today, attractions have to have a hook, Mormino said. "Cinderella's Castle, Shamu or a bigger roller coaster." Mega-resorts in the '70s -- Disney World, SeaWorld, Busch Gardens -- took a huge toll, but attendance was already dwindling, Mormino said.

Historians use the term "vanishing Florida."

The situation has worsened since Sept. 11, 2001, said Luanne Brannen, a spokeswoman for Sarasota Jungle Gardens. After the terrorist attacks, would-be travelers opted to stay home, causing even the venerable Cypress Gardens to briefly close its doors. Some Old Florida attractions are banking on the current interest in nostalgia to keep their doors open; others, such as Cypress Gardens, have added water parks and concert stages.

The fact that my family moved to central Florida from the Midwest in the '50s makes the decline of Old Florida attractions particularly poignant for me. These showplaces were my back yard, visiting them a ritual every time a cousin or a great-aunt showed up at our door.

But are they still showplaces? Or do they deserve to vanish? I recently made a visit back to find out.

* * *

Family vacations down Florida's two-lane Dixie Highway -- skirting the ocean from the Georgia border to Miami -- and along the once-well-traveled Route 19 on the west coast are fond recollections for many baby boomers, including me. My brother and I shared the back seat on many excursions. Just about the time a fight was close to erupting, one of those quirky roadside attractions would appear, and we were let loose to cool down.

I left the Sunshine State about the time Disney arrived. I now have an 18-year-old nephew, Gene, who has never seen a real live mermaid or an "attraction" instead of a theme park. His generation's entertainment is cyberspace, surround sound and virtual reality. Still, he agreed to accompany me on a tour of old-fashioned tourist traps.

We had three days in the fall. I picked Florida's west coast, targeting four destinations of remembered family outings -- Sarasota Jungle Gardens, Cypress Gardens, Tarpon Springs and Weeki Wachee. Memories of aquamaids on water skis who never got their hair wet, cockatoos riding unicycles, alligators snapping up dead chickens and flamingos eating out of my hand were packed along with sunscreen and a map.

Jungle Gardens (Sarasota)

"Oh, my gosh, it's Frosty!" I exclaimed, sitting up front at the bird show at Jungle Gardens. "I know that bird. He was on 'Ed Sullivan.' "

True, the trainer said. Frosty, a Moluccan cockatoo, did perform on TV before the Beatles and is still riding a unicycle across a wire at the grand old age of 70-something.

A slim crowd -- five blond Danish children, their parents and two senior couples -- watched the show with us as Frosty and his macaw friends did stunts requiring the intelligence of a 3-year-old, which the birds have. Shows are held in a wooden pavilion with wooden benches, not in an air-conditioned amphitheater. Tropical birds sit on tree branches nearby, not in cages. Everyone could ask a question, have their picture snapped with a parrot perched on each arm and feed the flamingos (25 cents for a handful of pellets).

The entrance is a squat building with a Polynesian roofline. The gardens' former owners lived in what is now the snack bar and shell museum, and the koi pond, near the snack bar, served as the family swimming pool.

When difficult times came to the attraction, which opened in 1940, the current owners decided they couldn't rely solely on tourists.

"We believe our survival depends on positioning ourselves as an educational zoological gardens," said spokeswoman Luanne Brannen, noting that the attraction has more than 200 birds and animals. A program called Partners in Education sells packages to local businesses, which sponsor events and seminars at the gardens. "We have many different groups participating, from public-school children to at-risk teens and adults."

Last year's attendance was 160,000. "We are definitely not in the Disney league," Brannen said. (More than 16 million visited the Orlando theme park in 2005, industry followers estimate.)

Five bird, animal and reptile shows are presented daily. We learned that the eastern diamondback rattlesnake can coil, strike, inject venom and strike again in seven-tenths of a second. He was sleeping when we visited.

The zoological garden is unusual in that 85 percent of its birds and animals are rescued. Rosco, an Aldabra tortoise kin to the Galapagos, was liberated from a circus where he was saddled and ridden. Many of the birds -- which can reach 100 years old in captivity -- outlived their owners; others were sent by law enforcement agencies who had confiscated them for various reasons.

The brick path through the 10-acre tropical gardens meanders for a mile and takes about an hour to walk if you want to read the identification tags and enjoy the 5,000 exotic plantings. If you're a teenager and the trail is deserted, it's a fast jog and you can do it a couple of times before your aunt completes the circuit.

Walking to the car, which was parked for free a few feet from the front door -- not miles away in a satellite lot -- I was feeling soothed that remnants of my Florida childhood still existed. "So," I asked Gene, "what did you think?"

"You really saw the Beatles on TV in the '60s?"

Cypress Gardens (Winter Haven)

The aquamaids no longer wear tutus and tiaras, the human pyramid on skis is only three persons high, not four, and the audience has to listen to a half-dozen endorsements before the show begins. But the Cypress Gardens skiers are still doing their signature stunts -- barefooted, backward, over ramps and with a pair of wings.

Again, we were among a handful of midweek visitors: Fewer than 50 people attended the morning presentation on a made-to-order Florida day -- 84 degrees and sunny with a light breeze. Sunlight sparkled on the water as brightly as the silver sequins on the aquamaids' armbands.

In one routine, the ski team unfurled American flags. Their athleticism shone above the sentimentality as they wove in and out and circled the towboat on swivel skis, turned somersaults on wakeboards, flew off ramps. Girls skied while holding the tow rope by a foot and twisting their bodies into ballet poses. Guys hoisted them overhead in the adagio crowd-pleaser -- and a favorite subject of postcard photographers through the years.

The park, which announced it was closing amid a sharp tourism decline after Sept. 11, 2001, has been enhanced and rearranged since it reopened in 2005 as Cypress Gardens Adventure Park. You now enter through Jubilee Junction, a gantlet of 11 souvenir shops and several restaurants, before you get to the 75-acre botanical gardens and lake, and the new water park and amusement rides. The park is sort of divided in two: Historical attractions are on the left -- including Tarzan, the 74-year-old alligator who appeared in the jungle films with Johnny Weissmuller -- and new attractions are on the right.

We were turned off by the year-round Christmas offerings and lackluster dining options and souvenirs. Splash Island Water Park was closed until March. The ice rink wasn't open. Carnival rides twirled and twisted for the most part without a single thrill seeker, probably because most in attendance that day were old-timers. At any rate, the lack of activity was so oddly unappealing that we weren't even tempted to take a spin.

"It's really slow now. The pace picks up during summer when families vacation and the water park is open," said a clerk at the deserted Kara's Kastle, a shop that sells ballerina outfits and rents gowns to little girls -- and their mothers -- who want to be Southern belles for a day.

"What do you mean by Southern belle?" Gene asked as I led him in search of the real beauties -- park employees dressed in full belle regalia -- down Topiary Trail, site of leafy rabbits, swans and serpents.

"Girls in prom dresses," I replied, "and they must be playing hide-and-seek."

We finally inquired about their whereabouts and were given a map and a schedule. There is no longer a bevy of beauties like in the old days, when you could barely snap a photo without a hoop skirt in it. That day two were on duty, and they appeared only at a certain place at a certain time.

Cypress Gardens sprung to life more than 70 years ago, when Dick and Julie Pope turned their gardens into central Florida's first major tourist attraction. The trademark ski show began in 1943 when family members were skiing on the lake and visiting servicemen thought it was part of the entertainment.

"Cypress Gardens was very popular and successful," said Florida historian Gary R. Mormino, who has a soft spot for the attraction. "Dick Pope was such a great promoter. . . . Many smaller attractions in the early years viewed it the way Disney is viewed today."

These days it can't touch the Disney numbers, though park spokeswoman Lynn Wright said attendance projections of 750,000 for 2005 were far exceeded when 1.4 million walked through the gates.

I remember visiting the attraction and driving miles through orange groves to get there. Today, a spin on the park's Sunshine Sky Adventure, a slowly revolving platform that rises 16 stories, reveals a view of gated community adjoining gated community.

Despite heavy hurricane destruction in 2004, when three major storms caused $25 million in damage and led the park to file for bankruptcy protection, the gardens are recovering quickly. And the park, which has changed hands several times, is adding attractions, including Bugsville, which will feature oversize furnishings to make kids feel the size of an insect.

On the oldie goldie side, there's a 45-minute guided walking tour of the gardens, and the Cypress Belle paddle boat from the earlier era is still afloat for those who like their water encounters at a slower pace than the Voodoo Plunge from atop a 60-foot slide.

Goodness knows it would take days to see and do everything, but still something was missing. The uniformity and neatness of signs, walkways, snack bars and trash cans all had too much of a Magic Kingdom spit and polish. I missed fecund Florida, that touch of wild, untamable spirit and beauty, a picnic spot under a tree and not in an air-conditioned food court. I wanted to tousle its landscape somehow and not have every bloomin' thing in place.

Spongeorama (Tarpon Springs)

We reached Tarpon Springs, the self-proclaimed Sponge Capital of the World, after nightfall and walked around the historical docks by moonlight. Greek accents drifted from dockside gift shops, and Greek music and aromas wafted down the street from a dozen or more restaurants. Baklava beckoned from sidewalk bakeries.

Tarpon Springs' sponge industry started in the late 1800s when fertile sponge grounds were found in the Gulf of Mexico. Greek divers and their families built a thriving industry and community. In the 1920s, millionaires from the north wintered in mansions along the waterways in the town that bore the moniker the Venice of the South.

A blight in the '40s known as the Red Tide devastated the sponge fields and turned Tarpon Springs into a charming, touristy town centered on Greek culture. I recalled my first of many trips to the famous Louis Pappas restaurant -- which closed a year ago and may become the site of condominiums -- and my first Greek salad and first taste of feta cheese and pepperoncini. Such exotic foods to someone raised on tuna casserole and Jell-O with Cool Whip.

If the grand St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral is the town's spiritual and social center, the rambling, tacky Spongeorama is its essence. This tribute to the industry and all things Greek is housed in an old, sprawling sponge-cleaning shed. It's part museum, part gift shop, and it has a cult following nearly as faithful as "The Rocky Horror Picture Show."

"Yeah, I see a lot of the same faces," said Naomi Kitsos, who runs the gift shop's cash register and Spongeorama's movie. "They come back every year, bring their friends."

Well, time has been making a few changes.

The museum's glass-enclosed dioramas, which feature five-foot-high wooden cutout figures depicting aspects of the diving trade, were built in the early '70s by a local diver-artist. The bishop mannequin is missing a hand as he blesses the fleet. The authentic Greek peasant outfit has been attacked by moths or age. Termites have eaten a lacy pattern into the wooden frames, leaving little piles of sawdust. Dust is thick. And there is a heavy layer of camp.

"Cool," said my nephew, looking at the diorama of a diver who stayed down too long. Blood spurts from his eyes and mouth. In case the message is missed, a clip from Newsweek magazine proclaims: "Sponge diving is probably the most dangerous occupation in the United States."

Then there is the film, opening with a modern infomercial on the values of natural sponges and ending with vintage footage of actual dives and segments from "Beneath the 12-Mile Reef" with Robert Wagner (filmed locally) and a Greek chorus singing, "I need it, I need it," as another voice lists the many occasions to use a real sponge.

The best part? It's all free.

Weeki Wachee Springs (Weeki Wachee)

The landscaping at Weeki Wachee Springs is minimal, more back yard than commercial garden. The river cruise goes half a mile and turns around. During our autumn visit, the park's only full restaurant was closed, and boxes stacked in a window gave it a forlorn look. Trash bins needed emptying. The water park was closed.

The place didn't look like a whole lot of fun.

Then we walked dismally down the ramp to the Underwater Theater for the afternoon performance of "Fish Tails," one of two that day. In season, up to five shows are held daily. Fewer than two dozen of us sat in a room that holds 400.

"This is weird," whispered my nephew, looking at the curtained stage. "What's going to happen?"

What happens is incredible. The curtain opens to a spectacular underwater rocky grotto. And true to their motto -- "Swimming our tails off since 1947" -- four "mermaids" in iridescent fins and flowing hair do just that.

"Tails" is a classic, including a demonstration of eating underwater, which was one of the original routines in the '40s. Oops. The mermaid drinking the soda in the production we saw had a little burp and was wearing a brown beard for a moment until the refreshment floated away.

Two turtles and many fish joined the show at will. The production (small compared with the lavish Broadway-style shows performed when ABC-Paramount owned the attraction in the '60s) ended with Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the U.S.A." booming while mermaids swam the flag into view and did backward somersaults.

It also included a descent into the throat of the springs, which pump out 740 gallons of water per second.

"It feels like you're heading into the force of a fire hose," said former mermaid Robyn Anderson, who is general manager of the springs as well as mayor of the town of Weeki Wachee (population 9).

After years of neglect and pending closure, Weeki Wachee Springs was bought in 2003 by the town, which has been making lease-required improvements under the campaign banner "Save Our Tails." Visitation is inching up, with last year's attendance at 250,000. The land, however, is owned by the Southwest Florida Water Management District; both parties are in the third year of a legal dispute over the repairs and possible termination of the lease. Anderson said the community is hopeful that a legal resolution will come soon.

For his part, my nephew was hoping the swimmers would take their tops off.

"Why aren't they topless? Mermaids don't wear tops."

Susan Harb last wrote for Travel on Indiana's Amish country.

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